Rock and Padstow are well-worn places of fine dining pilgrimage, thanks to Rick Stein and Nathan Outlaw. West Cornwall, on the other hand, is overlooked – and all the better for it.
Local ingredients are the big excitement here and rightly so. It is all about the catch of the day and extremely rich dairy products. If you like cream, fudge, butter and ice cream, you can look forward to a dream weekend – although waddling from deli to cafe to restaurant to pub could easily be spun out over a week if you have the time.
Penzance is the most obvious base for exploring as it is at the end of the mainline train. Refreshingly, it isn’t heaving with Londoners. If it were slightly more accessible, it would surely be a candidate for Margate-level hype about how ‘up and coming’ it is. There are boutique hotels and restaurants popping up, mainly near Chapel Street, which is worth a stroll along. It wears its history of mercantile wealth on its sleeve, with the blue plaques and characterful houses around every corner. There’s a garish Egyptian-inspired 18th century blue and gold townhouse that makes you do a double-take even when you’re expecting it. It’s quite something.
On the same street, and not at all garish or Egyptian, is recently restored Georgian town house, the Chapel House. The bedrooms in this upmarket bed and breakfast look as though they’ve fallen off the pages of an interiors magazine, and the breakfast in Sue’s Grand Designs-style kitchen is no different. Her sourdough sandwich with home-cured bacon, and all sorts of juiced concoctions are a great start to the day. The smoothies, the granola and the pastries are all spot-on. The Chapel House has a guest annex with its own kitchens, so you could shop for your own ingredients from local farms at Thornes on Causeway Head, and seafood from nearby Newlyn Fish Market.
If you prefer someone professional to cook your fish, there is a cute whitewashed pub, The Tolcarne Inn, right by Newlyn Fish Market. It has a chalkboard full of seafood specials every day and plenty of local ales. Jelberts ice cream, one street away, also makes Newlyn worth a wander. The walk there from Penzance along the seafront takes you past refurbished Art Deco seawater lido Jubilee Pool. Its sweeping view of Mount’s Bay is impressive, and the water looked inviting, even in the drizzle.
Among all of Penzance’s gastronomy, The Shore is king. Chef-owner Bruce Rennie does all of the cooking himself, which is remarkable given the skill and innovation in every dish of the tasting menu. The food is a gift for the taste buds: the mushroom and seaweed tea with a steamed bun was out of this world, as was the Salcombe scallop in sea urchin bisque. Puddings might include pink rhubarb with white chocolate parfait, or oyster ice cream. Always the sign of a good tasting menu, I could not wait to see what marvel was going to appear next. The restaurant is all the more atmospheric for being tiny, with only 26 seats and genuinely warm staff who clearly love the place.
Across the bay from Penzance is the tiny town of Marazion, the view of which is focused on the magical island of St Michael’s Mount, with its Enid Blyton-esque castle perched on the rocks. The St Aubyn family still occupy most of the castle and the inside is as enchanting as the outside. Given the view, they could get away with serving pretty mediocre food on the island, but fortunately they don’t. Lunch in the afternoon sun at the Sail Loft, looking out over the sea is a serene experience. The crab tartine and the Cornish rarebit (haddock, beetroot and horseradish pesto on homemade bread) were highlights.
We stayed at The Godolphin Arms, a pub with rooms and a panoramic view across the causeway to St Michael’s Mount. We had a wonderful, extremely dense Goan fish curry, looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the twinkling lights of Penzance at night.
On the last day we relocated a twenty-minute drive away, just along the coast from St Ives to Carbis Bay. The Carbis Bay hotel’s new beach lodges each have three or four bedrooms, an open-plan living area with a kitchen, and a hot tub from where you can look out for miles and miles to sea. Even by Cornwall’s high standards, the view is striking. The beach lodge bolthole was so luxurious and the beach was so appealing that we couldn’t tear ourselves away, not even to go to St Ives. You can order hampers full of gourmet treats to the lodge or walk up to the hotel’s smart but unstuffy The Sands restaurant, which has two AA rosettes.
Cornwall’s culinary prowess can get swamped by the summer masses that descend on the county in July and August. A trip in the spring can make it feel as though it’s your private back garden and, best of all, the food has a chance to shine.
Where to stay
Carbis Bay, St Ives TR26 2NP
A smart, convivial family-owned Victorian hotel with its own Blue Flag beach. (Three-bedroom beach lodges from £1200, bed and breakfast per night)
Chapel Street, Penzance, TR18 4AQ
Very cool and calm resorted Georgian townhouse set above the Penzance seafront. It offers bed and breakfast, and self-catering in the new guest annexes with their own kitchens. (Rooms from £150, bed and breakfast per night)
West End, Marazion, Cornwall TR17 0EN Reasonably-priced, jolly pub with rooms, most of which offer a show-stopping view of St Michael’s Mount.
(Rooms from £100, bed and breakfast per night).
Where to eat and drink
13/14 Alverton Street, Penzance TR18 2QP
Enjoy chef patron Bruce Rennie’s deft handling of local seafood with his subtle, complex dishes. The tasting menu (£58) with wine flight (£36) is a really memorable feast.
Tolcarne Place, Newlyn, Penzance TR18 5PR
This 300-year-old, white-washed seafront pub has plenty of specials that change daily depending on the trawl of the fish market next door.
The Sail Loft Restaurant
St. Michael’s Mount, Marazion
Far from your average National Trust cafe. Both the food and the view are marvellous and worth braving the high sea for. The castle usually closes for part of the winter so check ahead for dates and varying opening hours.
46 Chapel Street, Penzance TR18 4AF. Crooked ceilings, creaking beams and maritime artefacts make for a cosy pub, with friendly clientele.
20 Chapel Street Penzance, TR18 4AW. This boutique hotel has a stylish bar overlooking Chapel Street with squashy sofas, board games, books and cocktails.
Penzance is the final destination of the Great Western Railway from London Paddington. The journey is getting on for six hours but the last part flies by with a window seat.
Branch-line trains run regularly from Carbis Bay to St Ives for a day trip. Although it is also a comfortable walking distance.
The amphicraft to St Michael’s Mount runs at high tide. One-way fares are £3 for an adult.